Who Needs Brakes?
Pass The Fried Chicken & We'll See You In Court!
To paraphrase an overused cliché, on June 21, 1969, my friend and racing companion, Frank Buhrman and I went to a race and an adventure broke out. We’d just finished our junior year of college and had one year remaining to obtain those initial sheepskins.
In the late 1960s, if you were into asphalt late model racing, Virginia was a good place to live. Richmonders had Southside Speedway every Friday night with Ray Hendrick, Sonny Hutchins, Ted Hairfield, Runt Harris (the “4-H boys”) and a host of others, and on Saturday it was a pretty easy drive to Langley in Hampton, Old Dominion in Manassas or - my favorite - South Boston. The latter had high banks for great racing and fantastic food. The baloney burger was famous, but I never got to it, because the fried chicken was - to this day - the best I’ve ever had at a race track. A big fried chicken breast on a piece of Wonder Bread at a bargain price would have been worth the drive even if the racing had sucked, which it never did. The fans were cool, too: one night one poured some moonshine on the wooden bleacher seat and set it on fire to prove its quality to the guy next to him. This city slicker was a tad alarmed.
So glad Frank has immediately touched on one of my favorite racing (and non-racing) subjects – FOOD! The South Boston track sat a good ways off the main highway with a huge expanse of grassy parking between the track and the road. If your windows were rolled down, the aroma of chicken frying was the first thing that greeted your senses as you drove through the lot. Also, on nights when we weren’t quite as rushed as during the adventure Frank will describe, we’d drive just past the track to a place called Ernie’s. It had a cafeteria line serving up every southern meat known to man and all sorts of fresh country vegetables just out of the garden.
Things were even better when a traveling show came around, so when NASCAR’s old Grand American circuit came visiting, we were there to see the Camaros, Mustangs, Firebirds, Cougars, Barracudas, Challengers, Javelins and weirder entries (like Jack Ryan’s Porsche). The problem that weekend in 1969 was that I dropped my parents’ ‘65 Chevy off at the garage to be inspected Friday morning and picked up that evening to find it had failed because of bad brakes. In those days, inspection mechanics weren’t allowed to just fix something. I guess the fear was that they’d abuse their positions and force you to pay big bills to pass. Instead they affixed a “Rejected” sticker, which you had to take care of within three days.
Seemed like no problem. Saturday morning I headed back to the garage and had them fix the rear brakes (the ones they’d pulled and failed). Only then did they tell me that the mechanic who did the inspections didn’t work on Saturdays.
Seemed like . . . well, not much of a problem. I went straight to another garage, where the mechanic promptly pulled the front brakes and failed the car because THEY were bad, and by this time there was nowhere to get another batch of replacements.
Seemed like a problem, BUT, didn’t the sticker say I had three days to fix the problem? Well, no problem then, right? Off we went.
I guess I kept reminding Frank that we were really running behind schedule and might miss both practice and qualifying if we didn’t maintain a “steady” pace. We were heading southwest on U.S. 360, possibly the most deserted and boring highway in the Commonwealth of Virginia at the time.
Things would have been fine if that trooper hadn’t been hiding right where the speed limit on a dinky stretch of bypass dropped from 55 to 45, and I was going 60 (maybe 65). I kind of tried to plead my case, but I got dinged for speeding and driving with a rejected inspection sticker.
After the trooper asked for Frank’s registration and license, he started a very slow walk around Frank’s white ’65 Chevy as we held our breath. Neither of us even saw him glance toward the windshield where the “REJECTED” sticker had been plastered by the garage mechanic. He, of course, had seen it and duly noted it on Frank’s ticket.
At this point in our story, we can turn attention to racing.
This was the second full season for the NASCAR Grand American Series, previously called the NASCAR GT Series in 1968. Frank and I had watched the pony car brigade on the Richmond Fairgrounds dirt in ’68. Tonight at South Boston, the Camaros, Javelins, Mustangs, Firebirds and others would race for 267 laps over the banked SoBo 3/8th-mile asphalt layout. The official event name was the South Boston GT 100.
Tiny Lund had been the really big deal in Grand American racing driving for Ronnie Hopkins out of Greenville, South Carolina. However, Atlanta, Georgia Firestone tire distributor, Gene White had purchased from famed car builder, Smokey Yunick an experimental 1968 Camaro that once was painted black and gold carrying Smokey’s #13. Gene repainted the car red with a gold #25. It was outfitted with 180 degree headers that made the engine literally scream. It sounded like no other on the circuit.
To chauffeur his hot Camaro, Gene recruited a relative unknown, Pete Hamilton from Dedham, Massachusetts. Many would jump on the Pete Hamilton bandwagon in 1970 when he drove for Petty Enterprises and won both the Daytona 500 and a Talladega race in a winged Plymouth Superbird.
Pete, though, was no stranger to Frank and me. He’d come up through NASCAR’s modified ranks in the northeast, having been mentored by “Steady” Eddie Flemke, leader of the infamous “Eastern Bandits” who’d come south racing to Richmond in the early 60s and taken more than Dixie Cups back north. They’d beaten the pants off our locals. Any student of Eddie Flemke would be a force with which to reckon.
Though the field included such stalwarts as Tiny Lund, Jim Paschal, Wayne Andrews, Ken Rush and others, our eyes were on a local Richmond hero. The South Boston promoter had found a ride for “Rapid” Ray Hendrick of Richmond, known throughout racing as “Mr. Modified.” Ray remains the all-time winner at South Boston Speedway and is credited with winning more NASCAR sanctioned races than any driver in history.
26 year old Pete put the ex-Smokey Camaro on the pole while our hero, Ray, a by then 40 year old construction foreman by trade, managed to qualify his rent-a-racer Camaro in 3rd position.
Pete took off at the drop of the green, but Ray, the old man from Richmond, kept him in his sights. On lap 12 the sellout crowd at the beautiful southside Virginia speed plant stood as one with a huge roar. That was the lap that Hendrick passed Hamilton and proceeded to hold that lead for 111 consecutive laps.
When the checkers finally flew after 267 laps, young Pete in the Smokey Yunick-built Camaro crossed the line first, followed by the aging Virginia speedster, Hendrick. The crowd was not disappointed.
Not too much to say about the drive home, except that we saw Richmond’s Sonny Mallory of Mallory’s Speed Shop fame at a gas station. Sonny wasn’t slim and trim, and on this night his pants were covered with duct tape in the back. We took note, and Sonny quipped, “Had a blowout!”
I remember the Sonny Mallory incident driving home. It happened at a Shell station in a curve, next to the railroad tracks. That station and curve disappeared when U.S. 360 was four-laned. The rotund Sonny Mallory was a true character as well as the preferred supplier of speed parts throughout Virginia and up and down much of the eastern seaboard. He had a great sense of humor and billed himself as “The Round Man with the Square Deal!”
Keep in mind, too, that there was some reason for caution in Charlotte County, which abutted Prince Edward County, where Virginia’s “Massive Resistance” to desegregation had closed public schools only a decade earlier. Just outside of Keysville, the town’s drive-in movie theater had been rechristened the Keysville Kommunity Klub, just in case we weren’t sure where we were.
In all fairness, though, there were no hints of racism when I put in my appearance at the Charlotte County Court House some time later to fight my ticket - I felt that the rejected sticker part of the ticket was unfair, because I was within my three days to have my problem fixed.
I also felt a little funny, because I was the only person in court - black or white - who didn’t seem to know everybody else. Since I didn’t have anyone to talk to, I looked around and noticed (1) the portraits of famous Virginians (presidents and governors, mostly) and (2) busts of Roman emperors. The courthouse was designed by Thomas Jefferson, although he executed the design for use elsewhere, and it was borrowed for this project.
46 years after the fact, I feel a little guilty that I didn’t leave college and give Frank moral support on his day in court. I’m not usually known as a weasel, but in retrospect I could have gone and cheered for my buddy.
Anyway, my moment came fairly early, and I approached the bench with righteous confidence. After the trooper recalled the evening’s events pretty accurately, I explained that I had been told I had 72 hours to have the car re-inspected and so thought everything was OK.
“Officer,” the judge said to the trooper, “in your considered opinion, does that mean that this gentleman has three days to drive all over the State of Virginia and see if his brakes fail.”
If I’d held out my wrists to be locked up, or if I’d laughed, I’d probably still be there, so I kept quiet and paid what turned out to be a relatively modest fine. That wasn’t too long after I had decided I did not want to become a lawyer; this convinced me that I’d made the right choice.
But the race at South Boston was still worth it.